AMID FIGHTING IN LIBERIA, HUNDREDS OF REFUGEES RETURN TO CÔTE D'IVOIRE, UN SAYS

From: UN New York, Apr 10 2003 05:00PM
© UN News Centre at http://www.un.org/news

The tide has turned again in West Africa, as some of the 95,000 people who recently fled the Ivoirian crisis for Liberia are reportedly crossing back into troubled Côte d'Ivoire as fighting intensifies in their places of refuge, the United Nations refugee agency said today.

Saying the desperate refugees are "caught between a rock and a hard place," the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) reported this development after a "protection team" returned from a visit to the frontier area between Liberia and Côte d'Ivoire, which had been out of reach in recent weeks.

At one small frontier post at Nero village - west of the southern Ivoirian town of Tabou - an estimated 50 to 60 civilians were crossing back into Côte d'Ivoire each day. UNHCR said those on the move are a mixture of Ivoirian civilians, Liberian refugees who fled the Ivoirian crisis in recent months, and guest workers from Mali and Burkina Faso.

Liberian border officials told the UN agency that in recent days, several hundred civilians had passed through the frontier checkpoint, and that similar numbers were crossing at other border posts into southern Côte d'Ivoire. UNHCR has also been trying to verify reports that a group of some 2,000 people in eastern Liberia could be heading towards the border opposite Tabou.

Recent arrivals in Côte d'Ivoire said they decided to return because of a breakdown of law and order and widespread food shortages in Liberia, according to UNHCR. The agency's team interviewed one 26-year-old Liberian refugee who had just made the gruelling, three-day journey to Côte d'Ivoire on foot with only wild bananas to share with her four-year old daughter, because, she said, "there is no food to be had anywhere in Liberia."

But the situation is hardly better in Côte d'Ivoire, where the UN refugee agency has been negotiating for the relocation of the remaining 35,000 Liberian refugees to alternative sites within Côte d'Ivoire or in the region. Some of those refugees - including children - have been exposed to recruitment as fighters by both the rebels and government forces.

Although UNHCR and other humanitarian agencies have withdrawn the majority of their staff following an upsurge of fighting along the frontier, discussions are ongoing with the Liberian Government on ways to reach the desperate populations. Meanwhile, a new rebel movement, reportedly calling itself the Movement for Democracy in Liberia (MODEL), is staging a fierce battle in Ganta, near the Guinean border, which has displaced thousands of civilians, including Liberians, Ivoirians and other West Africans.


added by: Robert W. Kranz  April-2003